Home & Garden

The magic of Cornerstone Gardens in Sonoma

Adventure, whimsy and inspiration are all yours, and free, when you visit Northern California’s Cornerstone Sonoma Gardens.

This unusual place stands alone in bringing a different perspective to the word “garden” because it offers landscape architects and garden designers the freedom to exercise extraordinary creativity in more than 22 individual garden spaces.

Chris Hougie and his wife, Teresa Raffo, were honeymooning in France when they visited the International Festival of Gardens at Chaumont-sur-Loire. Both were intrigued by this new way to experience beauty and art; after returning home they thought about developing something similar in California. Nine acres was found and designers were told “to invent, inform, and create beautiful and compelling gardens that engage and inspire the viewer intellectually, emotionally, and aesthetically.”

“Working with all the designers really was wonderful,” Hougie said. “Clients give them constraints, and we had no constraints. Such freedom with this level of professionalism works out really, really well. Working with them was one of the best parts of the project.” He credits landscape architect Peter Walker and Mark Francis, professor emeritus, UC Davis, for their “very valuable help in the inception of the project.”

Visitors are invited to play, wander, think, and try creating interesting garden spaces of their own when they return home.

Ron Lutsko Jr. and project manager Roderick Wyllie worked to create the garden so that as landscape design changed, the different garden installations could change.

Raffo, project manager for new gardens with oversight of all events and promotions, said she especially enjoys working with landscape architects and designers when they take up residence at the garden. Teams get together over dinner to talk about progress or setbacks and discover the many microclimates when they stay a while. Three Chinese designers are currently working on a garden that features growing food for the future. “It will be about beauty and also functionality,” Raffo said.

The area dedicated to the children has a vineyard, colorful sandbox, climbing structure and birdhouses large enough for a family of condors. It was designed by MIG, a planning and design firm.

“Children don’t have any preconceived idea of what a garden should be,” Hougie said. His favorite day was the opening of the children’s garden. “We had thousands of happy kids running through the gardens.” Children are just as intrigued as adults by this collection of artistic landscape designs. Watching a 9-year-old gaze at sculptures or sit on them, roll huge garden balls about, or perch on a giant blue adirondack chair for a photo op is sheer delight.

Some design features are interesting if one takes a quick look, but visitors who look closer see more. That charming metal fence forming a series of hearts may be clever, but when you walk past the fence and into the garden space your feet are walking on a metal path of broken hearts.

Gorilla mulch, gravel in a variety of colors and sizes, grass, tumbled colored glass, metal, even pottery shards play a role your feet can experience here.

The red Chinese lantern looks lovely sitting in a pond filled with tiny mosquito fish. Closer inspection reveals the colorful red glass beads hanging from it are shaped like teardrops. The Chinese-inspired elements reference the migrant workers who came to California during the Gold Rush and stayed to build the Central Pacific Railroad.

“Small Tribute to Immigrant Workers” by landscape designer Mario Schjetnan of Mexico reminds visitors of the enormous help Mexican labor is to the success of California’s agriculture. Metal serves as a walk and a wall, and reflected heat reminds viewers of the desert where illegal immigrants die. One of the newest gardens has a more than 2,000-pound silver tree designed by Regan Gentry. It required great effort to anchor so a windstorm couldn’t roll it like a giant tumbleweed into Sonoma. This garden, designed by Suzannne Biaggi of Petaluma, also incorporates sound as one of its features. Bertotti Landscaping was instrumental in building it.

Petaluma Seed Bank contributes heirloom squash, flower, and gourd seeds for one of the gardens. The gourds dangle from their trellis in shapes that belong in cartoons. It’s one of those “try this at home, it’s fun” gardens.

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